Where Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus come together
Mark and I landed at a hot but rainy Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal (such a grandiose name!) on Friday evening where we were reunited with another former member of Warwick BuddSoc: Peyshan! We made a quick get-away from the airport, but unfortunately it is further from the city than Bangkok’s new airport is from Bangkok! So we had a long journey around KL and then another couple of hours driving up to Peyshan’s house. We stopped at a service station for food but none of the Malay restaurants had any vegetarian food, except bread. This was a bit of a surprise, and going without rice for the whole afternoon was a shock to the system given that we had eaten at least every 3 hours whilst in Bangkok! Luckily when we arrived at Peyshan’s house at around 1am there was a full meal waiting for us and after that we slept very well.
The next morning we left Peyshan’s house and set off for Penang. Peyshan trusted me driving her precious Malaysian-made car – initially I was quite cautious but I soon learnt the rules on Malaysian roads: 1) ignore lane markings or drive across as many lanes as possible; 2) tailgate to indicate to the driver in front you want to get past; 3) ignore somebody who tailgates you; 4) signal randomly to warn other drivers that you have no idea when you might change lane; 5) utilise slip-roads and hard-shoulders for over-taking. Having said all this, driving here is slightly more disciplined than Thailand, which I assume is one of the many British influences.
Our accommodation in Penang is owned by Peyshan’s employers – the central bank of Malaysia – and employees can use it whenever they like. The bank owns resorts all around the country – British institutions take note! Our residence for two days is right on the beach. I counted 24 steps from the room to the sand. Obviously the first thing we had to try was the sea. One of my last swims was in a Finnish ice-hole (less of a swim and more of a panicky splash around) and so it was a joy to swim in warm water!
The next essential activity, as you would expect from BuddSoc’s best eaters, was to find some food. For this we headed to Gurney Drive, the hot spot in Penang for food, where we found fried noodles, rice, rojak (fruits in a strong spicy sauce), ice kacang (ice with jelly, fruits and ice-cream) and jun jui nai cha (pearl milk tea). This brought back happy memories of Taiwan! We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the night market, while the locals tried to sell us pirate DVDs, fake Billabong t-shirts and plastic flip-flops.
On Sunday, after an early morning swim and a good jellyfish sting, we set off for the Kek Lok Si temple with its huge Quan Yin statue on the side of the mountain and a tall pagoda from which there were beautiful views across the city. The highlight of the temple for us though was the vegetarian restaurant where we ate a huge lunch.
Next stop was the centre of Penang to explore the history of the city. We visited the ancestral home of the Khoo clan – one of the earliest families to emigrate to Malaysia. They bought a piece of land off the British and over the years established a big complex of buildings for their clan, including a shrine hall where they keep the remains of the dead family members. Further down the road is a mosque – the land for which was ‘given’ by the British – followed by a Chinese Buddhist shrine where the land was also ‘given’ by those friendly Brits! Round the corner we found a Hindu temple where we were conned into a tour. It was quite amazing how the Malays, Chinese and Indians all live mixed in together – especially as they all live together along roads with English names like Cannon Street!
We ate dinner in the Little India area where a muslim guy forcibly coaxed us in to try the vegetarian food we could not refuse. It was quite tasty but we felt nervous having food forced on us. We finished our rice and curry fairly quick and left the unfamiliar surroundings to retire to a traditional Chinese tea house that we stumbled upon on the outskirts of the city. Although this was not the sort of place that tourists usually frequent, the atmosphere was far less pressured and much more enjoyable. For some reason I find the Chinese Malaysian places much more homely than anywhere else. The tea house was a great way to end the day, relaxing with friends over a good cup of Chinese tea.
After several rounds of tea, we paid another visit to the night market where I gave in and bought the flip-flops. But I did not stop there in boosting the local economy. I must have been in a good mood because it seemed that I was easily swayed into buying things I probably do not need by those smiling female sellers!
Monday, our final day in Penang, started with a trip to a Thai temple and a Burmese temple. We found another veggie restaurant for lunch where we once again ate like kings. It was a buffet with around 50 dishes, all vegetarian and delicious and cheap! After another drive around the town, we caught the ferry to the mainland, waved goodbye to Penang, and started our journey back to KL.